As the cannabis industry continues to be legalized and regulated, the need for analytic laboratories to test marijuana products is a growing business opportunity.
PharmLabs, an accredited analytic laboratory in San Diego, California, has been testing the waters of this emerging market since 2011 and is poised to expand substantially now that Prop. 64—which legalizes personal possession and cultivation of cannabis, as well as allows for regulated commercial activity—has been passed.
Greg Magdoff, CEO and co-founder of PharmLabs, began the company after acquiring at auction a gas chromatograph, one of the key pieces of lab equipment used in the testing of cannabis and its products.
Originally intending to flip the machine for profit, Magdoff, a home cultivator, quickly recognized the potential in testing marijuana. After experimenting at home for a short time, Magdoff and his former partner set up a small lab in the neighborhood of Ocean Beach, the hub of San Diego’s cannabis culture.
Originally catering to the area’s home growers, over time the business evolved into serving the cultivators, manufacturers and dispensaries that serve San Diego’s medical marijuana community. Educated patients soon saw the value of having their medicine tested for safety and potency, and savvy business operators began having their products tested to differentiate them from others on the market.
PharmLabs conducts many different types of analytic tests on cannabis products.
Potency testing is used to determine the amount of particular cannabinoids present in a sample of flower, concentrate or edible. A standard potency test at PharmLabs can determine the levels of total THC, total CBD and total CBN. A more comprehensive premium potency test can establish the levels of THC, THCA, CBD, CBDA, CBG and CBN.
Medical marijuana patients can use this information to choose a strain best suited to treating their specific condition and to help them determine the appropriate dose. Magdoff noted that cultivators, manufacturers and dispensaries also see the promotional value of potency test results and actively use them to market their products.
Like all agricultural products, marijuana is subject to contamination from micro-organisms and any chemicals that may have been used during cultivation.
However, as Magdoff mentioned, “Cannabis is unique. You can’t just wash it like an apple.”
Ensuring that cannabis products are free of contamination is a significant portion of the business at PharmLabs. Microbiological contaminants, including molds, yeasts, fungi and bacteria, can pose a risk of infection, particularly to people with a compromised immune system.
This hazard was underscored early in February, when doctors at the UC Davis Medical Center announced the death of a cancer patient who had died of a rare fungal infection. The physicians believe that the patient contracted the infection from medical marijuana he had be using to alleviate the side effects of his cancer treatment.
Users of any kind of marijuana products who have an immune deficiency should probably insist on lab testing, even from a personal grow. All methods of ingestion, from smoking or vaping flower or concentrates, to consuming prepared edibles or other orally administered products, carry a risk of infection. Even topical preparations can harbor pathogens.
Further complicating matters, what is safe for one patient might be dangerous for another, depending on the particular health circumstances of the individuals.
“I don’t think you can say which one is safe for which patient. It just has to be clean,” Jaclyn Mauser, microbiologist and lab director of PharmLabs, explained when discussing the relative safety of various cannabis products. A comprehensive microbiological test by PharmLabs includes detecting and quantifying yeast, mold and bacteria, including Salmonella and E. coli. The presence of aflatoxins and ochratoxins, poisons produced by fungi, can also be detected.
PharmLabs also offers additional tests for the contamination of cannabis products.
Two tests for pesticide analysis are available. One can determine the presence of 30 pesticides commonly used in cannabis cultivation. The other, broader test looks for 193 different agricultural chemicals. Two tests for residual solvents commonly used in extraction processes can also be performed on cannabis products by PharmLabs.
Other analytic services are also offered. A terpene profile can quantify the terpenes present in a sample. Cultivators can identify male and female plants days after germination with a sex determination test. A harvest optimization test can help growers pinpoint the time to cut their flowers for the best cannabinoid levels. Young plants with a potential for high CBD production can be selected using an early leaf cannabinoid ratio detection test. High resolution photographs of samples submitted can also be purchased.
I brought a couple of samples with me on my visit to PharmLabs and found their service, powered by a passionate staff and proprietary software, to be top-notch.
After creating an account and dropping off a sample, clients are notified via text message when test results are available. Results for potency tests are guaranteed within 24 hours, while other tests can take up to a few days. A visit to the online dashboard offers the results as well as useful tools, such as the ability to download and print potency labels, and post results to Weedmaps.
From its beginning, which saw months when only 10 tests were performed, to its current volume of more than 100 samples per day, PharmLabs has weathered an uncertain business climate.
The City of San Diego is currently in the process of deciding if marijuana businesses other than dispensaries, including PharmLabs, will be allowed to continue to operate. Whatever the prospects for its original location, growth for PharmLabs is clearly on the horizon.
A new lab was opened in Maui in 2016 to serve the cannabis industry on the Hawaiian Islands. Magdoff is currently scouting 10 locations for new labs in California, where regulations that go into effect in 2018 will require lab testing of all commercial cannabis products.
As more states and local governments legalize and regulate the cannabis industry, growth in the market for analytic laboratory testing of marijuana products will continue to be a budding opportunity.